Write only if you really cannot help it. – Professor Thomas Pavel
Last year, I had the fantastic opportunity to interview University of Chicago Professor Thomas Pavel for Examiner.com. His unique and extensive experiences – in addition to the acclaim he’s received – are true demonstrations of his commitment to what I like to call “living writing.”
In this interview, Pavel takes it one step further – sharing the simplicity of a few of his own writing rules, a great guide for the creatives in all of us. Enjoy!
Thomas Pavel is a the Gordon J. Laing Distinguished Service Professor at the University of Chicago. Elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2004, Pavel’s expertise includes the theory of fiction, Renaissance literature, the history of the European novel and intellectual life.
Pavel has published numerous essays and books, which have been translated into Spanish, Italian, Portuguese, French and Italian. Born in Romania, he received a master’s degree in linguistics from the University of Bucharest and a Ph.D. at the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales, Paris.
I recently had the privilege of interviewing Professor Pavel to discuss his writing motivations, advice for writers and his favorite things about Chicago.
Laura: You’ve written numerous novels and essays and have been elected into the Academy of Arts and Sciences – what an accomplishment! When did you know you wanted to be a writer?
Prof. Pavel: I am not sure whether I ever wanted to be a writer or whether I became one. As a teenager, my ideal was to be a learned, witty person. In my twenties, I wrote my first book, a collection of maxims and short essays on language and existence. Later I published a couple of novels and a few essays on literature. And a few scholarly books.
Laura: In your experience writing novels and essays, do you think there is truth to the advice, “write what you know?”
Prof. Pavel: “Write what you know” is an excellent advice, but I’d also add: “write only if you really cannot help it.”
Laura: What are you reading right now?
Prof. Pavel: Clarissa by Richardson, an extraordinary 18th-century novel. Because of its length – 1500 pages in the Penguin edition – few people have the patience to go through it. But no one captures all the movements and nuances of human psyche as well as Richardson.
Laura: You’ve lived and taught all over the world. What’s your favorite thing about living in the Chicago area?
Prof. Pavel: The thing I love most is the University of Chicago, so intensely intellectual, and yet so friendly and unpretentious. I love the theater in Chicago, the bookstores, the lake, Millennium Park. As a Catholic, I love the Latin Mass at St. John Cantius.
And as someone born in Romania, I appreciate ethnic Chicago: American steaks, Viennese coffee, Lithuanian beer, Russian chocolate, Middle-Eastern baklavas, Hungarian salami, Bulgarian feta cheese, Romanian Pinot Noir.
Laura: Given your years of expertise teaching writing and literary theory, what advice do you have for aspiring – or even established – writers looking to sharpen their craft and stay committed to the writing practice?
Prof. Pavel: Stay away from pretentious, incomprehensible writing. Just tell good stories. People love to read stories.